The multi-faceted Jnanpith winner has a historic vision but a contemporary voice.
By S Kalidas and Rehmat Merchant
Call it coincidence or destiny but Girish Karnad was in a remote village in Karnataka shooting a film based on a novel by K.V. Puttanna, the first Kannada writer to be awarded the prestigious Jnanpith award in 1967, when the newspapers announced that this year's Jnanpith had gone to Karnad. "It is both exhilarating and humbling," says Karnad. "There have been seven Kannada authors before me to have received the Jnanpith. And I know several who deserve it but have not been as lucky." Adding to the celebration, the Madhya Pradesh Government decided to bestow the Kalidas Samman on him as well.
A year of windfalls? Not quite, for as a playwright, poet, actor, director, critic, translator and cultural administrator all rolled into one, 60-year-old Karnad is a renaissance man. And despite what Salman Rushdie may say about the quality of writing in Indian languages, unlike the instant global glory harvested by the debutant angels of Indo-Anglia, Karnad's celebrity is based on decades of prolific and consistent output on native soil. Incredible as it may seem, Karnad too had dreamt of winning the world by writing in English. As a young man studying in the provincial Karnataka College in Dharwar, he had one burning ambition -- to go to England and write poetry in English. "I wanted to be internationally famous like Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot," he confesses. To Oxford he did go and as a Rhodes scholar no less. And international fame he has achieved -- but not for his English poetry.
The muse, when it descended on him one day in the mid- '50s, talked in a language that was neither his mother tongue Konkani nor his preferred English. It came in a rush of dialogues spoken by mythical characters from the Mahabharata and they spoke in his adopted language Kannada. "I was just the scribe," says Karnad. "I could actually hear the dialogues being spoken into my ears." The play was published as Yayati in 1961. An instant success, it was translated and staged in many Indian languages. Three years later came what is perhaps his best and most famous play Tughlaq. A compelling allegory on the Nehruvian era, it was performed by the National School of Drama repertory under Ebrahim Alkazi's direction with the noted actor Manohar Singh as the grandiose and visionary but despotic Tughlaq. Karnad had arrived.
Today, after eight major plays and several memorable forays into popular and art cinema as actor-director-scriptwriter, Karnad is in the process of finishing what he says will be his last film Kanaru Heggadithi (mistress of Kanaru; the Hindi serial version for Doordarshan is titled Kanaru Ki Malkin). "I've had a good life," he says. "I have managed to do all I could wish for -- even be a government servant (he has been chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and director of the Film and Television Institute of India)! Now I feel whatever time I have left should be spent doing what I like best -- writing plays."
A pity because more than his highly successful plays, it is the greater persona of Karnad as a cultural interventionist that has exercised enormous influence. While he may have written his plays as metaphoric parables, in life he has been a staunch upholder of the freedom of speech and expression -- courting a ban by the Censor Board, attacks on his house by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and threats from the Shiv Sena.
For a man whose celebrity status makes perennial demands on his personal life, Karnad would rather be the devoted family man spending time with his doctor wife Saraswathi and two children. A privacy he so values that he prefers not to share it with others. "I love my family but I don't necessarily like talking about it," he says. And he is aware of the price of fame: "The danger in turning into a public figure is that it eats into one's creativity. I have seen too many artists being swallowed up by that. Creativity needs to be nurtured. And if the top soil is gone then you are left with only the hard rock."
His detractors, however, insist that stripped of his other roles, Karnad is reduced to a bunch of plays that dwell on arcane myths and parochial ethnicity. "He does not confront reality," complains a contemporary, adding that "his characters are not flesh and blood individuals but broad representations of their class or ideology". But this charge is actively countered by Karnad's legion of admirers. Says young playwright Mahesh Dattani: "He has a historic vision but a contemporary voice, which make his plays very universal. Nagamandala is a universal, timeless play." Or listen to U.R. Ananthamurthy, eminent novelist: "Karnad is the poet of drama. The use of history and mythology to tackle contemporary themes gives him the psychological distance to comment on our times. Tughlaq worked so well because it was not a realistic play."
Karnad's first film was Samskara, based on Ananthamurthy's novel by the same name. He scripted it and acted in it as well. Banned by the censors initially for its volatile caste politics, it went on to win the President's Gold Medal after its release. Since then Karnad has acted in and directed several Kannada and Hindi films and television serials which won him both popular and critical acclaim. But he admits that acting attracted him the least: "I became an actor to earn a living. If writing plays could give me that, I would do nothing else."
Indeed, in the past few years Karnad has achieved just that -- getting paid for writing plays. The Guthrie Theatre in the United States not only produced and premiered the English version of Nagamandala as a part of its 30th anniversary but later commissioned him to write his latest play Agni Mattu Male (The Fire and the Rain), released by oup last month.
Ask him what will be his lasting legacy and he is embarrassed. "I see a legacy of my generation," he says. "I am happy to belong to a generation that had a Dharmaveer Bharti, a Mohan Rakesh, a Vijay Tendulkar and I. Together we can claim that we did create a national theatre for modern India." This is quintessential Karnad. He knows his worth but is the first to give credit where it is due.
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